The story so far…
Tom Cain rescued sisters Nikki and Willow Keats from psychotic Draggers and a Mist infestation with the help of sharpshooter Agatha West. They fled Milton on the apparently deserted airship Hecate.
Hecate has a mysterious stowaway, a young woman named Ishara, who rarely comes out of hiding. Last episode she helped a vertically challenged mechanic called Shorty to rescue the crew from a crime syndicate in the town of Havenvale, then disappeared, back into the bowels of Hecate.
Now the crew is looking for honest work, but finding that honesty is not always the best policy.
“It’s too bad about the gold though.” Shorty straightened up from behind the lathe, brushed some metal shavings from his sleeves and pulled a brass queen from the machine’s metal jaws. Even standing full-upright he only came up to Tom’s chest.
“What?” Tom was impressed by the skill Shorty had shown. He’d built a beautiful chess-set in a couple of days in Hecate’s simple machine room and he seemed to know everything about engines. What’s more he actually knew how to cook.
“The gold? Must have been worth a serious fortune. How did you come across such a haul?”
“Whoa, back up a minute… Gold?”
“Yeah.” Shorty brushed the brass to complete the finish and set the queen down on the newly created board. “Ishara told me those bars you had in the hold were just coated in a thin layer of lead. Were you smuggling them?”
Tom felt like he was about to pass out. He took a deep breath. “Wait… solid Gold?”
Shorty nodded. “Yeah, under a thin layer of lead to disguise them.” He looked at the chess board and wrinkled his nose. “I need some of those engraving tools we talked about.”
“Five tons of gold?”
“Well, more or less, yeah.”
Shorty rolled his eyes. “Yes Tom, real gold. Oh and I need a miniature file set too.”
“I had my hands on five tons of gold?”
“Yes Tom, gold. It was gold in the hold. The hold was full of gold, or so I was told. Perhaps the gold was cold?” Shorty smiled wryly. “I’m a poet.”
“She was certain?”
“Yeah, seemed to be. What’s the deal with her anyhow? She doesn’t spend much time ‘round the rest of you.”
“I really dunno Shorty…. Like I said before, she was stowed away when we found Hecate. Far as I can tell from the logs she’s some bigwig from Atlantis. You’ve seen more of her than I have. How’d she know it was gold?” Tom didn’t know which was worse, the thought that he’d held a massive fortune in his hold and lost it without ever knowing, or that Charkart, double-dealing lowlife, now had his hands on it.
“How’d she know you guys needed help, or that you were on that rooftop?” Shorty shrugged. “She just seems to know things. You think she’s one of those Atlantean witches? That’d explain how she’s been able to hide.”
Tom raised an eyebrow. “Those are just stories, an’ even in the stories they never leave the Inner Precincts.”
“Would explain the funny way you said the Mist acted around Milton.
“You think she wiped out her own crew?” Tom shook his head. “That’s cold…. Nah, like as not that was just coincidence.”
“Maybe… she’s a bit peculiar if you ask me though.”
There was a growing list of questions Tom had no answers for, but he did know one thing. Shorty had a gift for understatement.
They’d sat like dead-weight for a week in the Johnson City port. Nobody trusted such a junior crew to care for their cargo, and trying to find passengers had proven hopeless.
Tom hit the portside saloon, Harlequin Jack’s with Nikki, as he had every day. That was where the majority of the port’s airship business was carried out.
“Cheer up Tom, maybe today we’ll get a job.”
“It’s not that Nikki… not entirely.”
“Yeah, if we had that gold we wouldn’t have to worry about work. Ever.”
Nikki put an arm across his shoulders. “It’s gone now Tom. Let’s focus on earning some business.”
“You kidding me? We’ve been in port a week. Portmaster came looking for his moorage fee again today. If we don’t find something soon we’re going to have to sell off more of our gear.”
Nikki elbowed Tom in the ribs and hissed, “Try not to scare off any potential clients. And whatever you do, don’t come off as too eager.”
He looked up and saw two rough looking men approaching them through the near-empty saloon. One, broad-faced with a thick black beard, and the other thin as a whip and ginger-haired.
The bearded one cleared his throat. “I hear you’re lookin’ fer work.”
Tom nodded. “Passengers or cargo?”
“Bit ‘o both. Can you an’ your crew keep yer noses to yerselves?”
“’Course we can. It’ll cost extra though.”
Beardy smiled. “Then I think we can work together. M’name’s Jim Smith, an’ this here is John Brown. There’s three more of us, and a small parcel headed for Aetheopica. I got five-hunnert guilders to pay now, same again when we arrive safe. When can we set off?”
Tom shot his hand forward and shook with the men. “Gentlemen, you have a deal. Our ship is the Hecate, in landing-bay nineteen and we can leave the moment you’re ready.”
“What was that all about?” Nikki frowned at Tom as they passed through the crowded streets.
“Got us a job didn’t I?”
“You know they’re up to no good.”
Tom stopped and held Nikki by the shoulders. “Of course I do, sure as I know their names are not Smith and Brown. I just don’t care. We need this, and a thousand guilders will keep us out of debt for a while.”
“Dealin’ with people like that…. Just watch your back. We’ll be lucky if we get to keep the five-hundred up front without trouble.”
“It’s no problem Nikki, I’ve got it handled.”
Agatha was less impressed than Nikki. “You gave our cargo-hold over to a bunch of criminals?”
“Now Agatha, we don’t know their business.”
“No, ‘cause you promised we’d keep our noses out of it. What do you think, they’re bible salesmen?”
“An’ what if the Atlanteans search us comin’ in to Aethiopica? Odds-on that’s some form of contraband they’re smugglin’.”
“Sometimes you gotta take risks.”
“You’re risking all of us landing in an Atlantean jail, or shipped off to the inner precincts as slave labour! Shouldn’t we have a say in that?”
“I’m protecting you! All of you.” Tom took a breath. “We can’t cannibalize Hecate for parts to sell. If we go down that road where does it end? She’s our home. Where would you go if we lost her?”
Agatha shrugged. “Dunno, don’t have any place I guess.”
“Well neither do Nikki an’ Willow. Shorty might find another job if he can get someone to take him serious. I could get another berth on a trader, but it wouldn’t be the same. Hecate is our home and I’m not going to lose her because we’re having trouble finding work. If we can manage to save a bit we can buy and sell our own cargo. We’d be independent. Nobody could tell us what to do.”
Agatha nodded. “Makes sense Tom, but I still don’t like letting these thugs on board. They won’t even let me in the hold, they barred the door. What if there’s an emergency?”
“A cargo emergency?”
Agatha grinned. “Yeah, maybe not, but we don’t know what it is. Could be dangerous.”
Tom laid a finger aside his nose. “That’s why I’m gonna have Shorty climb through the ducts and have a li’l peek tonight.”
“Get Willow to do it, she’s smaller.” Shorty crossed his arms.
Tom raised his hands. “Willow is thinner, I’ll give you that, but your engineering know-how might come in handy.”
“You’re just picking on me ‘cause I’m short.”
“If you don’t wanna, I understand.”
“I don’t want to go.”
Tom picked up the finely detailed model of Hecate Shorty was working on. “We could use some of the money from this job to get those tools you wanted.”
Tom grinned. “Throw in a first-rate salmon dinner in Aetheopica.”
“Oh all right, but you owe me some new clothes if these get ruined in there.”
“It’s a deal then…. Say, Tom, I was meaning to mention it. I’ve been familiarizing myself with the engines and such, and I found an odd thing.”
“Good or bad?”
“Good, well, seems to be good anyhow. To a casual inspection they’re all standard old, reliable Wharburg Mark Fives, but on the inside’s a different story. The machining is too perfect for Wharburgs, a few things are just a little off, and they all have a dial to adjust the fuel-mix, which is certainly not standard.”
Tom stared blankly. “So?”
“So I think you could sacrifice fuel-efficiency for power, if you wanted to get two, maybe almost three times as much horsepower out of ‘em.”
“Will that damage the engines?”
“No, these things… they’re works of art Tom. Even overheating the one like you did coming in to Havenvale didn’t do any lasting damage.”
Tom took a breath, every time he thought he had her figured out, Hecate threw another mystery out. “Good work Shorty. Wait ‘till three or so to check our guests’ package, they should be well asleep by then. Wake me when you go, so I can be ready in case you get in trouble.”
“Why did I ever agree… Damnit!” Shorty skinned his knuckles as he tried to unfasten the last bolt holding the air-vent’s grille in place. Outside the ducts the five thugs slept on rough blankets, their cargo was just out of Shorty’s sight against the bulkhead.
He applied some oil and gave it a minute to sit and tried again. The bolt gave a loud creak then came away smoothly. Inside the hold one of the men stirred, rolled on to his back, and started to snore.
Shorty let out his breath. Carefully he picked the grille up and set it aside. He crawled out silently and got to his feet.
“Hi Shorty!” Ishara greeted him, nearly making Shorty jump out of his overalls. She sat there like a child, cross legged, playing with something in her lap.
“Look what I found.” Ishara held up a crystal skull.
“Shhh! You’re going to get us caught!” Shorty put his finger to his lips.
The snoring tough grumbled something sleepily.
Ishara put a finger to her lips and giggled. “Is this a game?”
“No, you’re going to get us both killed!”
Ishara laughed aloud. “Too late.” She paused staring into the distance, then held up the skull again. “Know what this is?”
“A crystal skull?”
“No, nonononono… well yes, but not just a crystal skull.” She leaned close as if revealing a great secret. “One of the Decatria.”
“What’s that mean?”
Ishara frowned. “Ooooh, I know this one…” She thumped a fist repeatedly against her forehead and rocked front to back. “Ah! It’s a crystal skull!”
Shorty sighed. “I know that. Is it worth much?”
“To the right person, it’s worth a fortune… a fortune of fortunes… inconceivable wealth.”
Shorty’s eyes went wide. “Thanks. I gotta tell the Captain. You’d better scram too, before one of them wakes up.” He turned to go.
“Just one problem.”
Shorty stopped. “What?”
“It’s broken.” Ishara pointed to a hairline crack running through the skull.
“Are you…” Shorty clenched his fists and stood there breathing heavily. It was like trying to have an intelligent conversation with a parrot. No point getting angry with her. “What does that mean?”
“Someone might buy it… but not for a fortune.”
One of the men started to cough and Shorty scrambled for the vent. He slipped the cover back in place just as the man roused and looked around. Shorty held the grille with his fingers. Any moment there would be a shout and the men would jump Ishara. Shorty would be left to help and probably get killed himself, or get the others and likely arrive too late to save her.
“Who left that out?” The tough got up and paced towards the corner where Ishara had been a moment before. He picked up the skull, laid it back in the box and closed the lid. Then he returned to his pallet, lay down and shuffled in under his blankets.
Shorty let his breath out, quickly refastened the grille and went to report to the Captain.